Evidence issues in unfair dismissal cases in Australia

 

The following passage from  a recent Fair Work Commission unfair dismissal case explains the process by which the Commission weighs issue of evidence and proof in such cases.

“It may be accepted that Woolstar’s belief as to the nature of the applicant’s conduct was in breach of the highlighted provisions in the Regulation above. In cases of dismissal for serious misconduct, the onus rests on the employer to prove, to the Commission’s satisfaction, that the misconduct had in fact occurred. This is why I have adopted the practice of reversing the directions so as the employer provides its evidence first. While this evidentiary onus must be discharged on the civil onus of proof (on the balance of probabilities), the more serious the allegation, the higher the burden on the employer to prove the allegation. In Briginshaw, at page 362, Dixon J said:

‘The seriousness of an allegation made, the inherent unlikelihood of an occurrence of a given description, or the gravity of the consequences flowing from a particular finding are considerations which must affect the answer to the question whether the issue has been proved to the reasonable satisfaction of the tribunal. In such matters “reasonable satisfaction” should not be produced by inexact proofs, indefinite testimony, or indirect inferences.’

[81] Further, in Neat Holdings Pty Ltd v Karajan Holdings Pty Ltd (1992) 110 ALR 449, the High Court said:

‘The ordinary standard of proof required of a party who bears the onus in civil litigation in this country is proof on the balance of probabilities. That remains so even where the matter to be proved involves criminal conduct or fraud. On the other hand, the strength of the evidence necessary to establish a fact or facts on the balance of probabilities may vary according to the nature of what it is sought to prove. Thus, authoritative statements have often been made to the effect that clear proof is necessary “where so serious a matter as fraud is to be found”. Statements to that effect should not, however, be understood as directed to the standard of proof. Rather, they should be understood as merely reflecting a conventional perception that members of our society do not ordinarily engage in fraudulent or criminal conduct and a judicial approach that a court should not lightly make a finding that, on the balance of probabilities, a party to civil litigation has been guilty of such conduct.’ (footnotes omitted)

[82] That the Commission for itself, must be satisfied that the misconduct occurred is well-established by the authorities of this Commission and its predecessors. In King v Freshmore (Vic) Pty Ltd (2000) Print S4213, a Full Bench of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (‘AIRC’, as the Commission was then styled) said at [24], [26], [28] and [29]:

‘[24] The question of whether the alleged conduct took place and what it involved is to be determined by the Commission on the basis of the evidence in the proceedings before it. The test is not whether the employer believed, on reasonable grounds after sufficient enquiry, that the employee was guilty of the conduct which resulted in termination.

[26] As we have noted above, s.170CG(3)(a) obliges the Commission to make a finding as to whether there was a valid reason for the termination of employment. In circumstances where a reason for termination is based on the conduct of the employee the Commission must also determine whether the alleged conduct took place and what it involved.

[28] It is apparent from the above extract that his Honour answered the question of whether the alleged misconduct took place on the basis of whether it was reasonably open to the employer to conclude that the employee was guilty of the misconduct which resulted in termination. This is not the correct approach. The Commission’s obligation is to determine, for itself and on the basis of the evidence in the proceedings before it, whether the alleged misconduct took place and what it involved.

[29] In our view the Senior Deputy President failed to determine for himself whether Mr King was guilty of misconduct in the way alleged by Freshmore and he should have done so as part of determining whether the termination had been harsh, unjust or unreasonable. When the reason for a termination is based on the misconduct of the employee the Commission must, if it is an issue in the proceedings challenging the termination, determine whether the conduct occurred. The absence of such a finding leads us to conclude that the member below failed to properly determine whether there was a valid reason for the termination of Mr King’s employment.’ (my emphasis)

[83] Even accepting that a finding of serious misconduct was open to Woolstar, such a finding must not be confused with the statutory language. The statutory instruct still requires the Commission to find that there was a valid reason for dismissal (s 387(a)). In Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology v Asher [2010] FWAFB 1200, a Full Bench of Fair Work Australia (FWA, as the Commission was then styled) relevantly held at [16]:

‘[16] In the circumstances of this matter the University purported to terminate Dr Asher’s employment for serious misconduct within the meaning of that term in the University’s enterprise agreement. If it successfully established that Dr Asher had engaged in serious misconduct it would necessarily follow that there was a valid reason for the dismissal. However, the converse is not true. As established by Annetta, the question that needed to be considered was whether there was a “valid reason” in the Selvachandran sense – whether the reason was sound, defensible or well founded. Whether it also amounted to serious misconduct may well be a factor relating to the overall characterisation of the termination but it was not an essential requirement in the determination of whether a valid reason exists.’”

Khoshaba v Woolstar Pty Limited t/a Sydney National Distribution Centre (2020) FWC 6596 delivered 10 December 2020 per Sams DP